I’m often asked how I moved from my "words-based" world of academic research to the more "visually-led" world of user research.
Spoiler alert: it wasn't as easy as I anticipated.
Quite honestly, I believed I would breeze right from academic research into the world of tech and product. I used my MA in Psychology, and academic research studies, as a huge selling point during my interviews. I spoke with the confidence of a five-year-old who was sure to be an astronaut when she grew up.
It wasn't quite as idyllic as I expected. As I worked in the field, I quickly realized there is a huge gap between social science research and UX research. It forced me to learn a few of the biggest differences between academia and the "real world.”
- Learning how to communicate differently
- Tech/design language and concepts
- Working with many different roles
- Doing faster research without jeopardizing the quality
- Completely different environment
- Many, many meetings
- Learning about business
This doesn't mean you’re doomed if you’re coming from an academic background. It just means you have to adjust and be willing to learn a different way of doing research.
The biggest difference between academia and UXR
UX research and academic research aren't completely different worlds. There are some similarities, and I know people from an academic background tend to inject more of that "academic" process into their user research practice.
However, many people who try to place academic research into a tech company struggle. This is because the majority of people in a company do not have the same background. There is an entirely different understanding when it comes to the tech world versus the academic world.
The most significant difference is the environment in which each "grew up." Academic research operates in a slower and more methodological domain, while user research operates in an extremely fast-paced setting. This is the most major adjustment I had to make when moving to a tech company.
In academia, I could take my time doing the research, and my studies would often span over months. Sometimes it took weeks or months to get approval from the IRB. Then, in a lackadaisical way, I completed my study.
But tech is different. Many companies use a framework called Agile methodology. It usually means teams work in two-week development cycles. So, when those two-week cycles come about, you have to have already completed the research, handed it over to the designer, done any other tests, and have development work ready to go.
To give some context, I have to touch base with teams every one to two weeks to make sure I am ahead of all their projects. I usually run 10 usability tests within a week and juggle several projects at once. It's possible but very different from what one may be used to in academia.
Teams need things done fast, and you need to be weeks ahead of everything to ensure the research is done before development starts. Now, this doesn't always work out correctly. I've failed at this many times, but it is crucial to learn this mindset. The company will move fast, and, to deliver a positive impact, you must move quickly with them.
Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.